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Friday, May 08, 2015

Questionable saint: Junipero Serra

From The Tablet: Questionable choice for next American saint

[...] Last Saturday Pope Francis described Serra as “one of the founding fathers of the United States, and a special patron of the Hispanic people of the country”.

Meanwhile Fr Vincenzo Criscuolo, a Franciscan from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, said Serra was “a man of his times”.

Neither of these statements necessarily contradicts suggestions that, as the San Francisco Chronicle put it, “the missions were little more than concentration camps where California's Indians were beaten, whipped, maimed, burned, tortured and virtually exterminated by the friars”. But the paper's claims might prove difficult to reconcile with Francis’ comments about Serra’s “holiness” and “saintly example”.

When Spanish King Carlos III requested in 1780 that the California missions free the Indians, give them legal representation, and stop whipping them, Fr Serra’s responded "spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians by blows... I don't see what law or reasoning my Indians should be exempt from being whipped…We can not free the Indians, relinquish directing their future, or give up the authority to use punishment."

In a letter to Spanish commander Fernando Rivera y Moncada, asking that a group of four Indians who attempted to escape Carmel Mission several times in 1775 be punished, Fr Serra requested, “… two or three whippings which Your Lordship may order applied to them… If your lordship does not have shackles, with your permission they may be sent from here. I think the punishment should last one month.”

So why canonise Blessed Serra and why do so now?

Fr Harvey Egan, a Jesuit and professor emeritus of theology at Boston College said in 2013 "Sainthood is often as much about politics and image as anything else." .... It is suggested that within 10 years half of American Catholics will be Hispanic/Latino. I think Francis and the Church think the canonisation will be a boost for Latinos – even though Serra was Spanish, not Latino – and a boost for Latino Catholicism at a time when increasing numbers are being attracted to Evangelical Churches ......

This reminds me of B16's comments in 2007 on a trip to Brazil that ... American Indians had been "silently longing" to become Christians 500 years ago.

I've remarked many times on the blog about how disillusioning it was for me as a new Catholic to read about the lives of the saints .... I finally had to come to the conclusion that most saints were not chosen because they were morally very good people but instead because their canonization would in some way benefit the institution of the church. It appears that Junipero Serra is an excellent example of this. People who like hagiography often respond that saints are only human like the rest of us, but if they are only human like the rest of us, why set them apart as saints in the first place? Oh right - PR.

More reading: To Some in California, Founder of Church Missions Is Far From Saint


Blogger Deacon Denny said...

Well, Junipero seems pretty questionable as a saint, I agree. But I'm not willing to throw out all the saints just yet because of that, and as for the many things about other saints that are not so good, well... you know the old "Thomas Jefferson had slaves" argument, don't you? Didn't disqualify him from being pretty important for democracy, even if he had big blind spots.

10:08 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Denny,

Oh there are many saints I do like - Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Joan of Arc, etc.

There was a part in the tv show Sleepy Hollow about Thomas Jefferson. Ichabod Crane had been friends with him and respected him, but in the present his new friends in the police dept (both African Americans) told him that Jefferson not only owned slaves but had an affair and children with one of them. Ichabod was completely disillusioned.

Is it ok to appreciate and use the helpful qualities of questionable people to accomplish some good project? Isn't that the meaning of "the ends justify the means" ? I'm not sure I'm ok with that.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Deacon Denny said...

Hi again, Crystal.

I don't think that's quite an example of ends/means, but let's look at it. To lift up someone as a good example doesn't mean you'd intend for everyone to follow everything the person does. Sure, declaring someone a saint.... I admit that's a bit more than just holding someone up as a good example! We'll see how far Juniper gets... But still, sainthood doesn't mean perfection, at least not to me.

Along with this sainthood topic, did you see the 5/4 article "Called to Be Saints," by Robert Ellsberg, on the canonization of Dorothy Day?
[Dang, I've forgotten how to create links on blogs....sorry!]


11:47 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Denny,

Thanks for the article recommendation. I looked it up and found it at America magazine.

Maybe not growing up Catholic gave me a more "popular culture" idea of saints than a Catholic would have. I think non-Catholic and non-Christian people maybe have the idea that saints (should( be perfect, or as perfect as people can be.

Serra wasn't just not a good example in every area of his life ... he was a bad example, and in the very area for which he's being canonized - evangelization. But so many saints from the past are like this - Francis Xavier, for instance, started an inquisition in Goa ... eeek! The argument everyone always makes is that those guys were examples of their times, that everyone back then was like that. But that's hardly a good argument for making someone a saint, and what about guys like Francis of Assisi, who was so much not like that.

But anyway, I'll read that article you mentioned - maybe it will help me understand what you mean :)

12:20 AM  
Blogger Deacon Denny said...

In that article, Dorothy Day's opinion of sainthood is a classic quote... and provides some good food for thought.

I think we both agree that whatever the definition of "saint" is, Juniper doesn't get there.


9:12 AM  

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